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Twenty-five years ago, it was my happiness to be commended to the good-will of American readers in their own country,22In a letter prefixed to a Memoir of the Rev. John Summerfield, published in 1829. by my honoured friend, James Montgomery: it was one of a thousand acts of unsolicited kindness for which I have been indebted to him during the period of more than a quarter of a century that I have enjoyed his confidence and his counsel. It is now my privilege, publicly,--not to return, but--to acknowledge the obligation "in kind," by presuming, without authority, and mea periculo, to prefix an Introduction to a work of his. I must, however, at the outset, utterly repudiate the possibility of a notion on my part, that any thing from the pen of Montgomery, and least of all such a volume as this, can require to be either introduced or advocated in any place where his mother tongue is spoken, where the love of English poetry is enjoyed, and where the influence of Christianity is recognized as leading not less to the refinement x of the intellectual, than to the purification of the moral character of man.
To the literary and educated circles of society in the United States, therefore, on the foregoing as well as on other grounds of universally acknowledged sympathy, the author of "The Wanderer of Switzerland," "The West Indies," "The World [no entity: &] before the Flood," "The Pelican Island," c., has long been as familiar--may I not say always as welcome?--as to similar classes of readers in his own country. It is not, then, with any design of bespeaking for my revered friend a more hearty welcome, much less in any hope of sharing in that welcome, that I venture to present myself in his eompany on the present occasion. For however little any of his former works might have been presumed to require adventitious introduction, the volume now in the reader's hand stands least in need of it. For, to any people keenly alive to the importance of an orthodox expression of evangelical truth, in any form, or through whatever instrumentality, and who are, at the same time, sufficiently free from sectarian trammels to be allowed to welcome it, every new and happy embodiment of a precious Scriptural sentiment, wbether in prose or verse, becomes a fresh and, if not a social, at least a personal source of spiritual enjoyment and edification. I record this opinion the more willingly and distinctly here, because, if it applies generally wherever the mind of the true believer and the xi Word of God are alike "unfettered," it may perhaps be urged with a more especial and happy significance among a people whose sacred literature is remarkable for its sound, expansive, and practical character. For I entirely agree with Montgomery, that, "In no walk of literature have our trans-atlantic kindred so worthily rivalled, and so nearly equalled, the writers of the parent country as in works of divinity."33Introduction to "A Voice from the Sanctuary," a series of Missionary Discourses by American Divines. 1845.
It may be objected,--the recognized importance, the influence, and the praise of sermons, whether as delivered from the pulpit or the press, must not be allowed to be tacitly transferred to compositions in rhyme. Perhaps not; and yet the taste for good poetry, the appreciation of congregational singing, and the consequent requirement and requital of the services of the minstrel or the vocalist--not more surely in the saloon than in the sanctuary--are sufficient evidences that the good people of the trans-atlantic cities and villages, have at least the same feelings and enjoyments as those of the "old country" in these matters.
It may also, I presume, be affirmed of the leading orthodox communities of Christians in the United States, as of those in Great Britain, that they generally use in their public worship either some metrical version of the Psalms of David, the xii Hymns of Dr. Watts, the collection made by the Rev. John Wesley, or selections from some of these, with more or less admixture of "original matter." Into the relative merits or comparative importance of the works here named, or alluded to, it is not my present intention to enter; and this would the less become me, as I shall have occasion to cite higher authority than my own on this subject, in the course of this Preface. With respect to rhythmical versions of the Psalms for choral uses, I may mention, in passing, that having several years ago published a particular work on this subject,44The Psalmists of Britain. 2 vols. 1843. I am prepared to assert that while certain adventitious versifiers of the United States, early and late, must be content to share with the elders of their language in Europe the moderate praise of having rather laudably aimed at, than of having perfectly succeeded in the hopeless attempt at giving to the sentiments of the inspired penmen the same impressive tone in the choir service-book that they possess in the "authorized version" of the Bible, they have, nevertheless, exhibited some specimens of a metrical rendering of the sacred songs of the sweet singer of Israel, which are not inferior to the best of those produced in the mother country.
To come now more immediately to the author of the work before us, it may be proper to show what xiii are his qualifications for the attempt to add "new strings to the celestial lyre"--new strains of sacred harmony to those which the church has so long possessed and approved, and this without the risk on his part of lessening a well-earned poetical reputation, by an ill-timed contest for the cheap distinction of a merely religious versifier. Those persons who know any thing of the early life and education of James Montgomery, as sketched by himself in the Preface to his Collected Poems, will remember that he was born and brought up among the Moravians, a people in whose public worship and private devotions singing, whether aided by instrumental accompaniment or not, always formed a large and delightful element. In this branch of divine service, as maintained in the church of his fathers, the youthful poet took an early and an abiding interest; and, as might be expected, in imitations of the simple but heart-touching compositions of the Hymn Book then in use among the Brethren, and long afterwards revised by him, the earliest kindlings of his genius manifested themselves. Soon after he came to reside in Sheffield, some years before the commencement of the present century, and thenceforward, as his poetical reputation increased, and his religious character developed itself, with a singular freedom from sectarian exclusiveness, and coincidently with the origin of those various institutions of piety which have so greatly distinguished our times, he was often called upon to render xiv his rhythmical skill tributary to devotion, by the production of hymns for occasional purposes. Among the welcome, or, at least, willingly gratified petitioners for services of this kind were not merely the managers of Sunday-school, Missionary, and [no entity: &] Bible-Society anniversaries, c., in the town where he resided, and who could urge the local plea of religious citizenship, but the compilers of Hymn Books in every part of the United Kingdom. To such an extent had the taste of the Poet, and the solicitations of his admirers, concurred in this heavenward direction, that, in 1825, he comprised, in a published work, which I shall presently more particularly describe, one hundred Original Hymns. He also tried his hand upon compositions in metre founded on the Psalms; the result of which experiment he published, in 1822, under the title of "Songs of Zion." To these "Imitations," as the author called them--sixty-seven in number--he affixed a very brief preface, in which he says, "he would venture to hope that, by avoiding the rugged literality of some, and the diffusive paraphrases of others, he may, in a few instances, have approached nearer than either of them have generally done to the ideal model of what devotional poems, in a modern tongue, grounded upon the subjects of ancient psalms, yet suited for Christian edification, ought to be." The success and the value of this experiment will, no doubt, be variously estimated by different readers, as they privately peruse, or xv publicly sing the several specimens of the "Songs of Zion" which are comprised in the contents of the present Hymn Book.
But Mr. Montgomery's connection with hymnology has not been confined to his own metrical achievements in the service of the sanctuary. Willing to impart to others, so far as "the art unteachable, untaught," can be communicated or improved by precept, the secret of his own successful practice, he has, in public lectures, printed essays, prefaces to books, and in private conversations, advocated the claims and explained the relations of sacred literature--and, in his hands, almost all literature became sacred--under the various forms which poetry may assume. At present, however, our concern is mainly with his opinions as they relate to such lyric compositions as are adapted to the elucidation or adornment of religious themes, the exhibition of Scripture facts and doctrines, or most chiefly to the expression of devotional sentiments and feelings in private, social, or public worship. Distributing the matter here alluded to under four heads, we shall have:--
1. An examination of the prejudicial opinion, grounded on some remarks by Dr. Johnson, to the effect that sacred subjects are unfit for poetry, nay, generally incapable of being combined with it.
2. The qualities requisite to give to authors and hymns a title to acknowledged excellence.
3. An estimate of the comparative merits of xvi some of the more celebrated composers of this class; and,
4. A consideration of the claims of Montgomery to his recognised rank as a hymnologist.
I. In proceeding to rebut the ignorant assumption of the incompatibility of poetry with devotion, Montgomery says:--"It is true that there is a great deal of religious verse, which, as poetry, is worthless; but it is equally true that there is a great deal of genuine poetry associated with pure and undefiled religion. With men of the world, however, to whom religion is an abomination, all poetry associated with it loses caste, and becomes degraded beyond redemption by that which most exalts it in the esteem of those who really know what they judge.
"But the prejudice alluded to is not confined to skeptics and profligates; many well-meaning people, who never took the trouble to inquire anything about the matter, in perfect simplicity believe this slander against the two most excellent gifts which God has conferred on intelligent and immortal man, upon the authority of Dr. Johnson. Let us see what that authority is. In his Life of Waller occurs the following passage:--'It has been the frequent lamentation of good men that verse has been too little applied to the purposes of worship, and many attempts have been made to animate devotion by pious poetry; that they have very seldom attained their end is sufficiently known, and it may xvii not be improper to inquire why they have miscarried. Let no pious ear be offended if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. The doctrines of religion may indeed be defended in a didactic poem; and he who has the happy power of arguing in verse, will not lose it because his subject is sacred. A poet may describe the beauty and grandeur of nature, the flowers of the spring, and the harvests of autumn, the vicissitudes of the tide, and the revolutions of the sky, and praise his Maker in lines which no reader shall lay aside. The subject of the disputation is not piety, but the motives to piety; that of the description is not God, but the works of God. Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.
'The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topics of devotion are few, and, being few, are universally known; but few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression. Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful in the mind than things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts of nature xviii which attract, and the concealment of those that repel the imagination; but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and such as it is, it is known already. From poetry the reader justly expects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension and the elevation of his fancy; but this is rarely to be hoped for by Christians from metrical devotion. Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot exalted; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be improved. The employments of pious meditation are faith, thanksgiving, repentance, and supplication. Faith, invariably uniform, cannot be invested by fancy with decorations. Thanksgiving, though the most joyful of all holy effusions, yet addressed to a Being without passions, is confined to few modes, and is to be felt rather than expressed. Repentance, trembling in the presence of the Judge, is not at leisure for cadences and epithets. Supplication to man may diffuse itself through many topics of persuasion; but supplication to God can only cry for mercy. Of sentiments purely religious, it will be found that the most simple expression is the most sublime. Poetry loses its lustre and its power, because it is applied to the decoration of something more excellent than itself. All that pious verse can do is to help the memory, and delight the ear: and for these purposes it may be xix very useful; but it supplies nothing to the mind. The ideas of Christian theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures, is to modify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere.'
One cannot but be amused to imagine how indignantly this wisp of dazzling fallacies and solemn truisms would have been dispersed, had they been brought within the scope of the powerful apprehension of the critic by any other person. Nor can we fail to remember, that the persons who were formerly most prone to adduce the dogmata against the alliance of Religion with "Poetry, the eldest, the rarest, and the most excellent of the fine arts," were almost as commonly the stoutest advocates for the influence of rhetoric and music--if not also for the merely esthetic achievements of architure, statuary, and painting, as auxiliaries to Religion; and this even when they did not also avow their own sources of Polyhymnic idolatry in the inharmonious and unedifying strains of Sternhold and Hopkins. And "the sum of Dr. Johnson's argument," says Montgomery, "amounts to this, 'that contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical;' and in the sense in which he employs the words poetry and poetical, this may be readily admitted; but that sense is imperfect; for it is limited to the style, rather than comprehending the spirit, of poetry, a xx distinction quite as allowable as his own, between poetry and motives to piety. He says, 'the essence of poetry is invention;' his own romance of Rasselas is a poem on this vague principle. Poetry must be verse, and all the ingenuity of man cannot say a better definition. Every thing else that may be claimed as essential to good poetry, is not peculiar to it, but may be associated, occasionally at least, with prose. Prose, on the other hand, cannot be changed into verse, without ceasing to be prose. It is true, according to common parlance, that poetry may be prosaic, that is, it may have the ordinary qualities of prose, though it be in metre; and prose may be poetical, that is, it may be invested with all the ordinary qualities of poetry, except metre. There is reason, as well as usage, in the conventional simplicity which distinguishes prose, and the conventional ornament which is allowed to verse; but gorgeous ornament is no more essential to verse, than naked simplicity is essential to prose. This, however, is a subject which cannot be discussed here; the assertion of the fact (and it cannot be contradicted), is sufficient to prove that there must be, in the compass of human language, a style suitable for 'contemplative piety' in verse, as well as in prose; consequently, there may be devotional poetry, capable of animating the soul in its intercourse with God, and suitable for expressing its feelings, its fears, its hopes, and its desires. Of course, this species of poetry will not parade invention, xxi for the purpose of 'producing something unexpected, which surprises and delights;' it will not be 'invested by fancy with decorations;' it will not attempt to exalt Omnipotence, amplify infinity, or improve perfection; but to 'sentiments purely religious', it will give 'the most simple expression,' which will also be 'the most sublime,' and certainly not the less poetical on that account. Its topics will be 'few, and, being few,' will be 'universally known,'--an inestimable advantage in this kind of verse, because, if properly worded (and more is not required), they will be instantly understood, and impressively felt, according to the predisposition of the reader's mind, in all their force and tenderness of meaning. If nothing can be poetry which is not elevated above pure prose, by 'decorations of fancy, tropes, figures, and epithets,' many of the finest passages, in the finest poems which the world has ever seen, must be outlawed, and branded with the ignominy of being prose."
"It is begging the question," continues Montgomery, "to say, that 'man admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.' He is; but what of that? he must follow the counsel of the prophet: 'Take with you words, and turn unto the Lord: say unto Him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously, so will we render the calves of our lips. Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon xxii horses, neither will we say any more to the work of our hands--Ye are our gods: for in Thee the fatherless findeth mercy' (Hosea, xiv., 2-3). Here is a prayer, dictated by the Spirit of God Himself, which is verse in the original, and ought to be rendered into verse when it would appear to be poetry, not of the simplest and severest, but of the loftiest and most embellished style: and does poetry here 'lose its lustre and power, because it is applied to the decoration of something better than itself?' Our critic says, 'The employments of pious meditation are faith, thanksgiving, repentance, and supplication.' He who denies that there can be a strain of poetry suited to the expression of each of these, in the most perfect manner, without either extravagance or impiety, must be prepared to deny that there is poetry in those very passages of the Psalms, in which, according to the judgment of all ages since they were written, there may be found the greatest sublimity and pathos."55Introductory Essay to the Christian Poet.--1827.
The volume to which these sentiments are prefixed, comprises "selections in verse on sacred subjects," from one hundred and fifty English poets, many of whom, it must be admitted, have no other title to the special epithet of "Christian," than because they have occasionally shown themselves well aware that their best strains might be surely derived from, and, as certainly, elevated by, religious xxiii subjects: but, of course, many others have holier and higher aims; and have succeeded accordingly.
II. But from the Christian Poet's defence of the use of verse in the service of religion in general, we proceed to his remarks on that form of it which is more particularly adapted to the service of the sanctuary. "A hymn," says Montgomery, "ought to be as regular in its structure as any other poem; it should have a distinct subject, and that subject should be simple, not complicated: so that whatever skill or labour might be required in the author to develope his plan, there should be little or none required on the part of the reader to understand it. Consequently, a hymn must have a beginning, middle, and end. There should be a manifest gradation in the thoughts, and their mutual dependence should be so perceptible, that they could not be transposed without injuring the unity of the piece; every line carrying forward the connection, and every verse adding a well-proportioned limb to a symmetrical body. The reader should know when the strain is complete, and be satisfied, as at the close of an air in music; while defects and superfluities should be felt by him as annoyances in whatever part they might occur. The practice of many good men in framing hymns, has been quite the contrary. They have begun apparently with the only idea in their mind at the time; another, with little relationship to the former, has been forced upon them by a refractory rhyme; a third became xxiv necessary to eke out a verse, a fourth to begin one, and so on, till having compiled a sufficient number of stanzas of so many lines, and lines of so many syllables, the operation has been suspended; whereas it might, with equal consistency, have been continued to any imaginable length, and the tenth or ten thousandth link might have been struck out, or changed places with any other, without the slightest infraction of the chain; the whole being a series of independent verses, collocated as they came, and the burden a canto of phrases, figures, and ideas, the common property of every writer who had none of his own, and, therefore, found in the works of each, unimproved, if not unimpaired, from generation to generation. Such rhapsodies may be sung from time to time, and keep alive devotion already kindled, but they leave no trace in the memory, make no impression on the heart, and fall through the mind as sounds glide through the ear,--pleasant it may be in their passage, but never returning to haunt the imagination in retirement, or in the multitude of the thoughts to refresh the soul. Of how contrary a character, how transcendently superior in value, as well as influence, are those hymns, which, once heard, are remembered without effort, remembered involuntarily, yet remembered with renewed and increasing delight at every revival! It may be safely affirmed, that the permanent favorites in every collection are those which, in the requisites before mentioned, or for some xxv other peculiar excellence, are distinguished from the rest. Authors who devote their talents to the glory of God and the salvation of men, ought surely to take as much pains to polish and perfect their offerings of this kind, as secular and profane poets bestow upon their works. "The faults in ordinary hymns, are vulgar phrases, low words, hard words, technical terms, inverted construction, broken syntax, barbarous abbreviations that make our beautiful English horrid even to the eye, bad rhymes, or no rhymes where rhymes are expected, but above all, numbers without cadence. A line is no more metre because it contains a certain concatenation of syllables, than so many crotchets and quavers pricked at random, would constitute a bar of music. The syllables in every division ought to 'ripple like a rivulet,' one producing another as its natural effect, while the rhythm of each line, falling into the general stream at its proper place, should cause the verse to flow in progressive melody, deepening and expanding like a river to the close; or, to change the figure, each stanza should be a poetical tune, played down to the last note. Such subservience of every part to the harmony of the whole is required in all other legitimate poetry, and why it should not be observed in that which is worthiest of all possible pre-eminence, it would be difficult to say; why it is so rarely found in hymns, may be accounted for from the circumstances already stated, that few accomplished poets have enriched xxvi their mother tongue with strains of this description."66Introductory Essay to Christian Psalmist.--1825.
III. Among English hymnologists the two most prominent names are undoubtedly those of Watts and Wesley; though there are others that enjoy a proximate, and perhaps a few, in connection with single compositions, even a higher celebrity. "Dr. Watts," says Montgomery, "may almost be called the inventor of hymns in our language; for he so far departed from all precedent, that few of his compositions resemble those of his forerunners; while he so far established a precedent to all his successors, that none have departed from it otherwise than according to the peculiar turn of mind in the writer, and the style of expressing Christian truths employed by the denomination to which he belonged. Dr. Watts himself, though a conscientious dissenter, is so entirely catholic in his hymns, that it cannot be discovered from any of these, so far as we can recollect, that he belonged to any particular sect; hence, happily for his fame--or rather, it ought to be said, happily for the Church of Christ--portions of his psalms and hymns have been adopted in most places of worship where congregational singing prevails. It might be expected that, in the first models of a new species of poetry, there would be many flaws and imperfections, which later practitioners would discern and avoid. Such, xxvii indeed, are too abundant in Dr. Watts' psalms and hymns, and the worst of all is, that his authority stands so high with many of his imitators, that, while his faults and defects are most faithfully adopted, his merits are unapproachable by them. The faults are principally prosaic phraseology, rhymes worse than none, and none where good ones are absolutely wanted to raise the verse upon its feet, and make it go, according to the saying, 'on all-fours;' though, to do the Doctor justice, the metre is generally free and natural, when his lines want every other qualification of poetry. It is a great temptation to the indolence of hymn-writers, that the quartrain measures have been so often used by Dr. Watts, without rhyme in the first and third lines. He himself confessed that this was a defect; and though some of the most beautiful hymns are upon this model, if the thing itself be not a fault, it is the cause of half the faults that may be found in inferior compositions--negligence, feebleness, and prosing.
"Next to Dr. Watts, as a hymn-writer, undoubtedly stands the Rev. Charles Wesley. He was probably the author of a greater number of compositions of this kind, with less variety of matter and manner, than any other man of genius that can be named. Excepting his 'Short Hymns on Passages of Scripture,' which of course make the whole tour of Bible literature, and are of very unequal merit--Christian experience, from the deeps of xxviii affliction, through all the gradations of doubt, fear, desire, faith, hope, expectation, to the transports of perfect love, in the very beams of the beatific vision--Christian experience furnishes him with everlasting and inexhaustible themes; and it must be confessed that he has celebrated them with an affluence of diction and a splendour of colouring rarely surpassed. At the same time, he has invested them with a power of truth, and endeared them both to the imagination and the affections, with a pathos which makes feeling conviction, and leaves the understanding little to do but to acquiesce in the decisions of the heart. As the poet of Methodism, he has sung the doctrines of the gospel, as they are expounded among that people, dwelling especially on the personal appropriation of the words of eternal life to the sinner, or the saint, as the test of his actual state before God, and admitting nothing less than the full assurance of faith as the privilege of believers."77Christian Psalmist.
This is just and generous praise; but it has always struck me as being less than its subject is fairly entitled to, in two or three particulars. In the first place, it may be questioned whether or not the wider prevalence of the hymns of Dr. Watts, as compared with those of Charles Wesley, be mainly due to the more unsectarian character of the former--may it not possibly be that they rather xxix coincide, negatively at least, with the doctrines of a much larger sect, or with those of several sects? In the second place, the merit attributed to "the poet of Methodism," as having sung, however successfully, "the doctrines of the gospel, as they are expounded among that people," is liable to be taken equivocally, as meaning something that may be more or less than exactly scriptural. I merely hint at these points. But there is a third; I mean the poetical superiority of the hymns of Charles Wesley to those of Dr. Watts, whether we take for comparison the whole of them, as they appear in ordinary collections, or select single specimens from each, upon which it would be cowardice in me not to insist. But both these "sweet singers" have faults of versification, and some epithets and expressions of questionable propriety. Is it proper to point out these imperfections? Ought they to be removed? Both these questions are important. The worse than thankless reception of the Wesleyan Hymn Book by one of the preachers of the connexion in England88Wesleyan Hymnology, by the Rev. W. P. Burgess. 1846. affords small encouragement to answer the first question with a practical affirmative; while, in the preface to the very volume now in the reader's hand, we have something like a formal and authoritative negative reply to the latter question.
As it is one main object of this Introduction to xxx present an abstract of the opinions of our author, as enunciated in three essays which are merely named in the Preface to his "Original Hymns," I must briefly allude to Montgomery's estimate of the metrical piety of another of his predecessors. No two individuals could be more unlike in their origin, or more dissimilar in their natural character, and their early history, than the Rev. John Newton and William Cowper; and yet, through the signal operation of divine grace, they not only became, after their equally remarkable conversion to God, singularly of one spirit in their life and doctrine--"one in Christ Jesus"--but they have left, in the "Olney Hymns," an enduring monument of their friendship and piety. These earnest productions, even where most clearly marked by the strong opinions of the poet-preacher, or most deeply tinged with the morbid melancholy of the preacher-poet, are justly regarded as a precious legacy to the Church of Christ; and few are the modern collections of verse adapted for congregational singing which do not contain some specimens of them. In allusion to two large classes of these hymns, viz., those on portions of the Old and New Testaments, and those of an experimental character, the essayist anticipates and answers a question which must often have presented itself to others--"Are such compositions fit to be sung in great congregations, consisting of all classes of saints and sinners?" "It must be frankly answered with respect to the far greater proportion--No! xxxi except, upon the principle, that whatever may be read by such an assembly may also be sung. On no ground can either the reading or chaunting of the Psalms from the Common Prayer Book of the Church of England, or the singing of authorised versions of the same be justified, except on this--namely, that these are subjects to be impressed upon the minds and memories of the people, for individual application by themselves (when they can be persuaded to make it); but generally, for instruction, warning, reproof, correction, and example--in reality as means of grace. The part which a congregation of professing Christians can generally take in the routine of divine service--in reading, praying, responding, or singing--is a subject (considering what the real usage is) almost too awful to think upon in any other view than the foregoing. Confining himself to this point of justification alone, the writer of these remarks ventures to add, that, whereas singing is only one of the forms of utterance which God has given to man, not which man has invented, any otherwise than he may be said to have invented speech by the faculty which God gave him to do so--whatever a man may without sin, recite with his lips, in the house of God, he may also sing, when the same subjects or sentiments are modelled into verse, or set forth in numerous poems like the translated Psalms and other poetical parts of Holy Writ suitable for chaunting." * * * "This volume of Olney xxxii Hymns ought to be for ever dear to the Christian public as an unprecedented memorial in respect to its authors of the power of divine grace. Those may disparage the poetry of Cowper's Hymns who hate or despise the doctrines of the Gospel; they are, however, worthy of him, and honourable to his Christian profession. These first-fruits of his muse, after she had been baptized--but we must drop the fictitious being, and say rather, after he had been baptized 'with the Holy Ghost and with fire,' will ever be precious (independent of their other merits) as the transcripts of his happiest feelings, the memorials of his walk with God, and his daily experience (amidst conflict and discouragements), of the consoling power of that religion, in which he had found peace, and often enjoyed peace to a degree that passed understanding."99Introductory Essay to Olney Hymns. 1829. How exactly do these terms also characterise the author of these "Original Hymns." Indeed, I have transcribed the closing portion of the foregoing extract for the purpose of adding that there has been no man of genius between whom and Montgomery the resemblance is so strong as the bard of Olney. "Lamented Cowper! in thy steps I tread," [no entity: &] c., was the apostrophic language of the author of the "West Indies;" and, assuredly, not only in their common abhorrence of slavery, and their similar exemplification of the influences of evangelical religion, but in the Christian tone of their larger xxxiii works, the simplicity and purity of their lives, and especially in the chaste and spiritual character of their beautiful hymns, the two Christian poets alike demonstrate that their inspiration flowed from the source indicated by the angelic messenger "who touch'd Isaiah's hallowed lips with fire."
On grounds like those indicated in the foregoing remarks, not only have the hymns to which they specifically refer, but those in other collections, been exposed to the emendations of editors. Among the most obviously defensible of these interferences with an author's genuine text, are those which go to remove or qualify expressions which stretch perilously near, even if they lie really within the bounds of allowable phraseology. And here, I allude not to the assertion of those transcendant attainments of Christian assurance, holiness, and exaltation, about which the soberest professors of religion sometimes differ, but rather to those bold appropriations of the sensuous language of Solomon's Song on the one hand, and of the mysterious symbolisms of the Revelation of St. John on the other, which none but the most fanciful or the most fearless versifiers would nowadays adopt. At the same time, the unwarrantable liberties sometimes taken with favourite hymns, by incompetent parties, should suggest caution in this kind of dealing.1010I have just seen a new and elegantly printed collection of Hymns for Public Worship, the editor of which takes credit for not altering the productions of living authors; while he explains that he has so altered a striking composition by an American author, as to justify him in giving the result under his own name.xxxiv
Notwithstanding, however, some discouraging indications, and the conviction that most parties would much sooner assent to a proposed revisal of the "authorised version" of the Holy Scriptures than to any alteration in the text of their repective Hymn Books, I humbly submit that the right of any man, or any sect of men, to adopt their own phraseology in devotional singing, is indisputable, at least under the following limitations:--
1. Parties adopting the compositions of a living author, are plainly bound to conform to the terms on which he may choose to permit such use, either during his own lifetime, or so long as his copyright exists.
2. The publication of an altered hymn, under the name of the original author, and without acknowledgement of such alteration, is worse than dishonest. It is the clandestine insertion of a spurious bud in a stalk of reputed excellence.
3. Emendations of a literary nature ought generally to coincide with the original sentiment: in other words--should be what it may be presumed would have been the expression of the author himself had he possessed the abilities, or could he have anticipated the position of his editor. Hence, the most allowable alterations in old hymns, are the xxxv correction of obvious mistakes, and the supplantation of harsh or obsolete terms: the most reprehensible, those which purposely vitiate or subvert the primary meaning of the poet. These remarks are, of course, made with special reference to the unauthorised version of compositions intended to be sung; in other respects, the rights and usages of editorial interference apply to hymns as to other kinds of verse.
The least hazardous way of dealing with unacceptable passages in an otherwise favourite hymn, is undoubtedly by simply omitting the verses in which they occur. This, I believe, would be the direction of Montgomery himself in such cases. He has indeed acted largely upon this principle in "The Christian Psalmist," where, it must be admitted, he has not less frequently exercised that reformatory process so emphatically deprecated in the Preface to his own Hymns. The plea of correction and improvement, irrefragable as it may be, when applied to his judicious touch, is very liable to be urged or assumed with equal success by the most dishonest or incompetent emendators. Still, as I have said, since every person ought to be allowed to use, and in a country where the exercise of opinion and action in this matter is so little restricted as in the United States, will select the most agreeable phraseology, even the perilous privilege of altering accredited hymns, as the alternative of losing for a single expression, or perhaps a single xxxvi word, the pleasure and the profit of singing a strain which is at once elegant, instructive, and devotional.
IV. We must now advert to the claims of Montgomery to the title and reputation of a hymnologist. In the work last quoted, he says, "One of the most precious uses of the sacred oracles is their infinite capability of personal application to the mind and the heart, the circumstances and duties of the Christian in every state of life and every frame of spirit." Hence, "The most illiterate person, who understands his Bible, will easily understand the most elegant or emphatic expression of all the feelings which are common to all; and, instead of being passive under them, when they are excited at particular seasons, he will avail himself of the songs put into his mouth, and sing them with gladness and refreshment, as if they were his own. Then, though like Milton's, his genius can ascend to the heaven of heavens, or, like Shakspeare's, search out the secrets of Nature through all her living combinations, blessed is the bard who employs his resources thus; who, from the fulness of his own bosom, pours his divinest thoughts, in his selectest words, into the bosoms of his readers, and enables them to appreciate the rich communications to their personal exigencies, without robbing him or hindering others from partaking of the same abundant fountain of human inspiration--a fountain flowing like the oil, at the command xxxvii of the prophet, from one vessel into as many as could be borrowed, without exhausting the first, though the whole were filled. If he who pens these sentiments knows his own heart, though it has deceived him too often to be trusted without jealousy, he would rather be the anonymous author of a few hymns, which should thus become an imperishable inheritance to the people of God, than bequeathe another epic poem to the world, which should rank his name with Homer, Virgil, and 'our greater Milton.' After these strong words, but more especially after the freedom and severity which he has exercised in judging the performances of his predecessors, the author may offer, with many misgivings, the hymns in the following collection as his own. Tried by the standard which he has himself set up, every one of them would be found wanting."1111Christian Psalmist The modest ambition and humble disclaimer embodied in the preceding sentences, characteristic as they are of the writer, will not be allowed to outweigh the estimate which the world and the church have long since formed of the man of genius and the Christian poet.
In reference to the metrical compositions used in Christian worship, the poorest of them are generally as good as the taste of those who sing them; indeed, paradoxical as it may seem, more persons may easily be found capable of writing middling hymns xxviii than of appreciating excellence in the best. Ministers of religion themselves, when not compilers,1212Among these compilers are many clergymen of the Church of England, who, taking advantage of the ambiguous and practically inoperative relation of the law to what shall be sung in consecrated places, have not only superseded the use of the old and new versions of the Psalms, as they, perhaps on not much better authority, have supplanted each other, by hymns of an evangelical and devotional tone, but they have made and printed selections suited to their own tastes respectively; thus taking advantage--wisely, as many persons think--of the only apparent outlet for individualising the nonconformity of taste and feeling in this delightful branch of divine worship. are frequently among the stiffest advocates for a severe sentence on him who shall venture to think out the meaning of the words of what he sings, as if the piety were in the tune, and the edification in the aim of this elevating act of devotion. Let, however, any competent person carefully and candidly collate these "Original Hymns," with the stringent canons of composition promulgated by the author in the passages above cited, and then let him try by the same test an equal number of the compositions of a similar character by other modern poets; the result will probably be both instructive and conclusive.
Although labour is not genius, even in literature, and Montgomery would probably be among the foremost to deny that any one could acquire the "faculty divine" of the true poet by a mere apprenticeship xxxix to verse-making, he would, I am sure, be equally the first to lay stress on the supreme importance of cultivating any talent in order to its complete efficiency. Many persons who read his hymns, and other pieces, so smooth in metre, so sweet in their cadences, so natural and exact in phraseology, may suppose they are struck off at a beat, in moments of inspiration--in plain terms, that they are produced with as little labour as they are read. Nothing can be farther from the fact; for, whatever may have been the mode of catching and fixing first thoughts, the whole has been submitted to frequent and careful elaboration or revision. As it was my privilege to transcribe for the press the greater part of the matter of the following pages (of course, without the alteration of a single word of the author's final corrections), I may be presumed to know something of the process alluded to, from the character of his manuscripts, most of which presented abundant evidence of the limae labor; and in addition to this palimpsest appearance of the original copies, they were sometimes multiplied in variorum forms, one hymn, I recollect, existing in not fewer than ten different versions! I mention this fact to show to young persons, especially such as may happen to be gifted with the "fatal facility" of religious verse-making, how great a price even a veteran hymnologist feels himself bound to pay for distinguished success.
In the language, not of hyperbole but of truth, xl it may be said that the hymns of the Sheffield poet present evidence of every variety of the excellence which he has pointed out in others. In "catholicity," they are not inferior to those of Dr. Watts; in "daring and victorious flights" of spiritual aspiration, they sometimes rival those of Charles Wesley; they are "very pleasing," like Addison's, not only when, like his, they celebrate the blessings of "the God of Providence," but because "the God of Grace" is "more distinctly recognised in them;" equally with Doddridge's "they shine in the heauty of holiness;" with Toplady's, "there is, in some of them a peculiarly ethereal spirit;" while often, like Beddome's, a single idea is ingeniously brought out, "not with a mere point at the end, but with the terseness and simplicity of a Greek epigram;" and all this is heightened and deepened by the affecting conviction that the best compositions of Montgomery, as of Cowper, "are principally communings with his own heart, or avowals of Christian experience; as such, they are frequently applicable to every believer's feelings, and touch unexpectedly the most secret springs of joy and sorrow, faith, fear, hope, love, trial, despondency, and triumph."
It would be easy to adduce, from the book before us, examples of each of the foregoing forms of hymnic excellence, and perhaps also occasional instances of failure; for what human production is perfect? But I am--and without hesitation I confess xli it--too genuine and generous an admirer of the poetry of my venerable friend, to be implicitly trusted either as a discriminating or an impartial eclectic in such an undertaking. I shall therefore conclude this essay with a few miscellaneous remarks. Allusion has already been made to the "Songs of Zion;" one of these, commencing "Hail to the Lord's annointed!" will be found at page 276 of this volume; it is perhaps one of the most elegant and mellifluous imitations of a psalm in the English language. Dr. Adam Clarke, who has quoted it at length in his learned Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, says the author "has seized the spirit and exhibited some of the principal beauties of the Hebrew bard." The solemn sentiments condensed in Hymn 238, point to the fact that "Eternity!" whether the direct or casual subject of the poet's verse, seems to have been an ever-present reality to his mind, influencing by the awfulness of its collateral bearings and its final meditations. The several hymns on the Bible, the Sabbath, the advent of the Messiah, and the preaching of the Gospel, are exceedingly appropriate and beautiful. The same may be said of several of the compositions which are rather of a didactic, exegetical, or apostrophic, than of a strictly devotional character, and which are better adapted to be silently treasured up in the memory than uttered in vocal harmony. Of these, the verses on "Prayer," Hymn 62, have probably been xlii more admired by religious people in England, and form to a greater extent one of the "Pleasures of Memory," among old and young, than any modern essay of rhyme of a similar class. A considerable number were, as already intimated, composed on special occasions. If any apology were necessary for the perpetuation of these, it might surely be found in their titles respectively; for, however "few and far between" in their anticipated recurrence jubilees and centenaries may be, these exquisite mementos of their having been, will only be repudiated, if at all, by sterner heads and harder hearts than those which were in the first instance gratefully affected by them; to say nothing of the fact, familiar to most pious people, that poetical forms of "sound words," when embodying portions of scripture truth, even for fugitive purposes, are rarely allowed to perish in the first using.
It need scarcely be added that the entire matter of this book, from the first page to the last--from the opening hymn of praise to the "Thrice Holy" Lord God of Hosts, to the corresponding aspirations of the closing Doxology--is strikingly evangelical; indeed, so complete is the inter-penetration of this hallowing element, that while there is hardly a single verse which may not be consistently appropriated by any denomination of orthodox Christian worshippers, there is not one that can be fairly pressed into any service incompatible with xliii the doctrine of "salvation through the blood of the Lamb."
I owe it to the delicacy of the gentleman with whose name and works I have dealt so freely, but not inconsiderately, in the foregoing pages, to say that, should this Introduction ever meet his eye in print, that will be the first intimation he will have of its existence.
Sheffield, March 14, 1853.
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